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10 Healthy Ways to Put On Weight

Tips for adding pounds if you need to


spinner image close up of two strawberry smoothies for healthy weight gain surrounded by red and white striped straws and fresh whole strawberries on a kitchen table
HUIZENG HU / Getty Images

Research shows that people who carry a few extra pounds may live longer. So if you’re on the thin side, should you consider plumping up?  

Not necessarily. If you come from a naturally thin family or have consistently had a low body mass index (BMI), a lighter-than-average weight may not be a problem. “Sometimes people have a low BMI but they’re perfectly healthy,” says Allison Miner, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. (A BMI of 18.5 is considered underweight.)

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Some research has found that having a bit of extra weight as you age may even be good for you. Some studies have found people with higher BMIs after 60 may have a lower dementia risk than those who were underweight or have a normal weight — though it might be because people lose weight as dementia begins to take hold. Having a healthy weight seems to be important for bone strength as well. Being underweight is a risk factor for osteoporosis and increases risk of fractures. (Obesity is also a risk factor for fractures, so striving for a healthy weight is best.)

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Unintentionally shedding pounds due to things like illness, depression or a medication that steals your appetite can spell danger in your older years. “Unhealthy weight loss can lead to a state called sarcopenia, which is when you’ve lost so much muscle mass that you don’t have enough for healthy function,” says Naomi Parrella, M.D., chief of lifestyle medicine at Rush University System for Health in Chicago.

Trying to gain weight may sound like an enviable challenge for much of the country but, experts say, putting on pounds can be just as difficult as taking them off. The challenge is making sure that the weight you’re putting on is made up of more muscle than fat. The good news: “The human body is designed to heal and thrive no matter how old you are,” Parrella says.

These strategies can help you put on healthy pounds:

1. First, let your doctor weigh in

If you’re recovering from an illness like cancer, ask your doctor if there are any limitations or considerations you should be aware of as you regain the weight. Likewise, if you’re too blue to feel like eating, seek mental health treatment.

2. Power up your muscles

When you are increasing the number on the scale, good nutrition and muscle building should go hand in hand, says David Creel, director of exercise physiology at the Bariatric & Metabolic Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Strong muscles are key to doing the things you want to as you age and avoiding frailty.

“When we’re talking about loss of muscle, we’re concerned about function, like being able to carry your groceries,” Creel says.

That’s where strength training comes in. You don’t have to work out at the gym or with a trainer, though if you’re new to this type of exercise, a few sessions can be beneficial to learn the proper form.  

You can get a decent workout at home using small weights or resistance bands, or just lift household objects (soup cans, milk jugs). Do push-ups against a wall using gravity and your body as the weight, squats while holding onto a counter, and crunches for your core. Aim to work out two days per week, but not on consecutive days, Creel advises.

To get started, check out workout videos for simple strength training exercises on our Staying Fit page. 

3. Eat more often

For most healthy adults, three meals a day about five hours apart is the ideal meal schedule, Miner says. If you want to gain weight, though, you need to supersize it. Instead of just your typical three squares, add a hearty snack three hours after breakfast and lunch and another one before bed.

spinner image close up of healthy peanut butter balls with coconut shavings and chocolate chips on a wooden butcher block
pamela_d_mcadams / Getty Images

Snack break

No-Bake Peanut Butter Balls 

  • 3/4 cup smooth peanut butter, store-bought or homemade 
  • 1½ cups oats, old fashioned  
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped or powdered nuts (any type)  
  • 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips 
  • 1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut  
  • 1/3 cup dried cranberries or raisins 
  • 1 TB vanilla extract 
  • 1 tsp flax or chia seeds 

Combine the ingredients, adjusting the amount of peanut butter to ensure a firm texture that is not too sticky. Smooth peanut butter provides more calories than chunky peanut butter because the body is more efficient in digesting smooth peanut butter. Roll into tablespoon-size balls and place on parchment paper. Cover and refrigerate.  —Alison Miner

4. Pump up the protein

To gain more muscle than fat, you need protein — and plenty of it. “As we get older, our body needs to take in a little bit more protein to stimulate muscle growth and for muscle maintenance,” Parrella says.

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It’s also necessary for strength training, Creel says. “You want to make sure that you’ve got the resources to put on the weight as muscle,” he says.

The general recommendation is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (about 3.6 grams per 10 pounds). But “we’re finding that it’s better to get more like 1.2 or 1.3 grams per kilogram in someone who is trying to gain weight,” Creel says.

People absorb protein less effectively as they age, so it’s important to spread your intake throughout the day. A good rule of thumb is to consume 25 to 50 grams of protein, three or four times a day, or every time you eat. “Otherwise, you can’t absorb enough protein at a time to maintain your muscle mass,” Parrella says.

In addition to animal protein like chicken, beef and fish, consider soy products like tofu and edamame. You can also get quality protein from dairy products and nuts and by combining legumes with grains — amaranth and quinoa are particularly high in protein. And mix whey protein powder with smoothies, or drink packaged whey protein shakes.

5. Load up at breakfast

People tend to be hungry when they wake up in the morning, so use this to your advantage and eat a full breakfast.

“That’s when you really want to deliver the calories,” says Miner. “Eating more calories when you’re hungry is really the key.” Appetite wanes in the evening, so you can eat less then.

6. Increase calories — and fat

Even if they know they should gain weight, many people are afraid to add fat to their diets, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, dietitian and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label to Table. “Fats like almonds, avocado, nut butters, and olive and avocado oils are great ways to get healthy fat in your diet, get concentrated calories, but not have a negative impact on your health.”

Miner suggests cooking rice and oatmeal with milk, even evaporated milk, to add calories. And use coconut milk as a base in stews and curries.

Feel free to enjoy whole-fat yogurt. “The latest evidence on the full-fat yogurt and even cheese, believe it or not, is that they do not increase blood cholesterol levels,” Miner says.

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7. Eat energy-dense meals

“A meal with a salad, a main dish and different sides is a lot of food to eat for someone who may not be used to eating that much,” Taub-Dix says. “And a big salad before a meal could be too filling. You want to make the meal more concentrated. The goal is less volume of food.” 

One-dish meals that combine vegetables, legumes, and chicken or fish (think: stews and soups) are a good option, Taub-Dix says. If you really want a salad, make it count: Include beans, nuts, avocados and dressing made with healthy oils like olive oil — nothing fat-free.

8. Don’t plump up too fast

Just as people should lose weight gradually, making behavioral changes that will stick, you should take a measured approach to weight gain.

“Adding 300 to 500 calories a day is a good place to start,” Creel says. That should allow you to gain about a half pound to a pound a week. 

9. Drink your calories 

Downing a lot of high-calorie beverages is one of the ways that people gain weight, so it’s the natural strategy for adding heft to your frame, Creel says. Instead of plain water, drink milk or 100 percent juice, he says.

Smoothies are the perfect choice. “The reason we use them for weight gain is because the body doesn’t have to do anything to break it down,” Miner says. “So all the calories that you’re taking in will be absorbed.”

You can even add whole or ground nuts to the mix. “The body is not efficient in breaking nuts down,” Miner says. “If I were to give someone a half cup of nuts to eat, they might only absorb a half to three-quarters of the calories as if they were blended into a drink.” 

Start with an instant breakfast drink or protein powder and add nuts and whole milk or almond milk. Then experiment with Greek yogurt, 100 percent juices, fruit and nut butters.

spinner image close up of a mixed berry smoothie for healthy weight gain with blueberries, chia seeds, and a sprig of mint on top set on a kitchen table
Anna_Shepulova / Getty Images

Smoothie Time

High-Calorie/High-Protein Smoothie 

  • 1 cup of whole cow’s milk or whole milk yogurt (substitute coconut milk, if vegan) 
  • 1/3 cup of finely chopped walnuts 
  • 1 banana or 1 cup of blueberries or strawberries (fresh or frozen)
  • 1 cup chopped fresh baby spinach or ½ cup shredded carrots 
  • 1/3 cup of orange or apple juice 
  • 1 TB chia or flax seeds 
  • 2 TB whey protein powder (substitute pea protein powder, if vegan) 

Put ingredients in a blender, adjusting the amount of each ingredient to suit your taste. Blend on high for 1½ minutes. Drink between meals or as a meal substitute.  —Alison Miner

10. Stimulate your appetite

“It’s really hard to force yourself to eat when you’re not hungry,” says Miner. And older people tend to have a lower appetite to start with.

Solution? If a prescribed medication is wrecking your appetite, ask your doctor if there’s a substitute and troubleshoot other medical issues that might be robbing your appetite. You can also ask a doctor about medications that increase hunger, such as megestrol acetate, oxandrolone or dronabinol.

Food should also seem more appealing after exercise, Creel says. In addition to resistance training, try some light cardio in the pool, he advises.   

“There’s evidence that swimming, especially in cold water, may stimulate appetite more than exercise on dry land, as your body has to generate more heat,” he says. “It’s also a great activity for older adults who might have some limitations as well.”

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